A few spores spawn an epidemic of fear

Around the world, powdery discoveries trigger false alarms

War On Terrorism

Anthrax Scare

October 21, 2001|By Scott Shane and Peter Jensen | Scott Shane and Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

A few teaspoons of powdery anthrax spores were sprinkled into a handful of envelopes. The envelopes, scrawled with childish lettering, were dropped in the mail.

And what happened next was a reminder that the word terrorism comes from the Latin terrere, "to cause to tremble." To spread fear is as much the goal of a terrorist as to inflict direct harm. By that standard, the anthrax attacker has succeeded.

With U.S. troops launched to a distant war and the economy spinning downward, members of Congress abandoned their offices - postponing a critical vote on an economic stimulus package - while hazardous materials teams scoured the buildings. Television news anchors left tainted newsrooms and, from borrowed quarters, reported their colleagues' tests and symptoms. The mail, an enduring symbol of connection, became an intruder, to be considered armed and dangerous until proven otherwise.

And that's just at the epicenters. The ripples have spread around the world, sowing panic and hypochondria, starting a cascade of evacuations, cancellations, arrests.

Buildings were emptied and lives disrupted by anthrax scares at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a U.S. consulate in Japan, a town in Ukraine, a university in Spain, post offices in Ireland, a police station in South Africa, the nuclear power agency in the Czech Republic - the list could be continued indefinitely.

In Townsville, Australia, about as far from the confirmed anthrax attacks in the eastern United States as you can go, the discovery of suspicious letters led to 50 workers being washed under decontamination showers and rushed to a hospital for tests. That was only one of scores of powder panics in Australia.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks appalled the world with a death toll of more than 5,000. But while the anthrax letters have killed only one person since a tidal wave of news coverage began Oct. 4, they have generated more widespread chaos and disruption.

"If you're afraid of hijacking, you just don't fly," said Fredrick Koenig, a Tulane University social psychologist who studies how rumors are transmitted. "But what are people supposed to do with this? Stop breathing? Stop opening their mail?"

In a medical journal Friday, researchers warned of "mass sociogenic illness," in which large numbers of people seek medical attention, believing they have been infected by biological agents. They mentioned recent examples from Washington state, the District of Columbia and the Philippines, where 1,000 students flooded hospitals complaining of cough and fever after rumors spread about bioterrorism.

"Chemical and biological weapons are quintessentially weapons of terror. ... The purpose of these weapons is to wreak destruction via psychological means - by inducing fear, confusion and uncertainty in everyday life," wrote U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs physician Kenneth Craig Hyams and two co-authors in the editorial in the British Medical Journal.

When the first, fatal case of a tabloid newspaper photo editor in Florida was linked to powder delivered by mail, the potential for false alarms became almost unlimited.

"You start noticing things you didn't notice before," said Koenig, the Tulane psychologist. "You start feeling things you didn't feel before."

Rumors spread based on two factors, he said: the importance of a message and its ambiguity. In this case, the message is of the utmost importance: "You could die." And the ambiguity has been exacerbated by contradictory statements from the media and public officials, who have issued alarming warnings and exhortations to live normally, sometimes on the same day.

Powder - white or brown, fine or grainy - has become a visible sign that invisible anthrax spores might be floating in the air. And as anxious people quickly discovered, powder is everywhere. Even when hoaxsters weren't making malicious mischief, there was powder to be discovered on office desktops and airplane seats, on kitchen counters and schoolroom floors - where it had waited, unnoticed, until the anthrax scare began.

On edge after the Sept. 11 hijackings, airline pilots were quick to react to powder scares, and dozens of flights were delayed or canceled because of powder scares. An Austrian Airlines flight en route to New Delhi returned to Vienna when white powder was spotted on a seat, so that all 256 passengers and crew could be tested. Northwest Airlines banned artificial sweetener and powdered coffee creamer from its flights after spills disrupted two flights.

The mail came under sudden and unaccustomed suspicion. Operation Dear Abby, an annual ritual that encouraged readers of the venerable column to send mail to servicemen and women, was canceled at the request of the Pentagon.

American Express apologized to 40,000 Swedish credit card holders for mailing them promotional material containing plastic snowflakes and the request to "spread these out." Postal workers in Sicily went on strike, demanding rubber gloves for handling mail.

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